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A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)
A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 1

Remarkable school gives girls from the bottom of India's caste system new hope Add to ...

The article that has caught her attention is about Bihar, a state far to the north. There, she reads, the people are so poor that they sleep by the roadsides, in mean little huts or no shelter at all.

The girl puts the magazine down and tries to picture it. Her parents own a plantation, where they grow ginger and rice and pepper. They are not rich, but they are prosperous. The workers on their farm have less, of course, but her parents pay them well, they have sturdy houses and she plays with their children in the yard after school some days. She tries to picture people so poor they must sleep at the roadside. She can't. And she decides, in that moment, that she will one day go to see for herself.

One year later, that girl, Sudha Varghese, set out on the four-day train journey north. In a quietly radical act, the first of many, she joined a Roman Catholic religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame, which worked on education in Bihar. By becoming a nun, she was taking the sole path that would allow an Indian woman, then or indeed even now, to live as a woman alone, single and independent, for the rest of her life.

She spent a few years training at the Notre Dame Mother House in Patna, the Bihari capital – she had to learn English and Hindi, the language of the north; prepare for taking her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; and learn the basic skills of teaching and social work.

But Patna was disappointing. While Bihar was far poorer than Kerala, life in the Mother House was soporifically comfortable. So, in just a couple of years, Sister Sudha struck out on her own: “I wanted to be with the poor – and not just the poor, but the very poorest among them,” she says. “So I went to the Mushahar.”

The name means “rat eaters” – a sneer at the people at the bottom of the caste system. In a rigidly segregated society, the Mushahar are deemed by dint of birth to be the most reviled, below even the “manual scavengers” whose traditional job is to collect excrement from people's homes and carry it away in baskets on their heads.

The Mushahar are found mainly in the north Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; elsewhere, this bottom-caste position is reserved for other groups.

Dalits make up 16 per cent of Bihar's 103 million people, and Mushahar are about 15 per cent of Dalits. They are the least literate (about one in 100 adults can read), and have the worst health and economic indicators.

Almost without exception, Mushahar own no land, have no job but occasional farm labour, and are made to live apart from the rest of the community – to the southwest, so wind that blows over them does not touch the rest of the village.

Sister Sudha had known about caste, of course; her family was likely high-caste Hindu before converting to Christianity many generations before, although they never talked about it. The labourers on their farm came from the Dalit community, but she was raised sharing meals with them.

Bihar was an alien world, the one she had been seeking. She travelled out of the capital for a couple of hours to the tola – Mushahar settlement – of Jamsaut, and asked if she could stay.

“I was looking for a people and I found them,” she says.

A look or touch that ‘pollutes'

The idea of “untouchability” – that some people are so “polluted” simply by virtue of the family into which they are born, that they cannot be touched, sit or eat with others – was laid out in ancient texts of Hinduism, and endured for nearly 2,000 years.

Organized resistance began in the mid-1800s and grew slowly; in 1950, India adopted a new constitution that outlawed caste discrimination. New affirmative- action quotas were meant to give the former “untouchables” – who began to call themselves Dalit, a Sanskrit-derived word for “the broken people” – access to education and to government jobs.

Today, Dalits make up a sixth of India's population, about 170 million people. In the biggest cities, many Dalits have been able to leave untouchability behind. The parliamentary speaker is a Dalit woman; so is the chief minister of the largest state. In cities, Dalits can attend schools, buy tea at a café,and live where they like, although individual landlords may turn them away when they hear their surnames.

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